Advertisement

Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at tampabay.com/coronavirus. Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. News

It's not just Florida: Sex accusations roil several state legislatures

Beneath the wave of sexual misconduct allegations in recent weeks against male lawmakers and candidates lies a common theme: These offenses had been going on for decades, but were either unacknowledged or dealt with quietly.

Now, veils of silence in legislative chambers are lifting as public disavowals and calls for resignations pour in against the accused, even from fellow party members.

Roiling the political world in the last week was a report in the Washington Post that four women had accused Roy Moore, the Republican nominee for a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama, of sexual or romantic advances when he was in his 30s and they were teenagers, one as young as 14.

While many Republican officials in Alabama have come to Moore's defense, a chorus of others — including the president, vice president and Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader — immediately called on the candidate to step aside if the allegations were true. The Senate campaign arm of the party cut its fundraising agreement with him, and two Republican senators have rescinded their endorsements.

But as the debate over Moore, who called the allegations "completely false," plays out on a national scale, a blitz of scandals has also hit statehouses from California to Florida, where accusations that might have been ignored in the past are drawing aggressive responses. And those accused have found themselves with few colleagues to back them up in public.

"There's not the sense of trying to defend these guys in the same way," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for Women and American Politics at Rutgers University. "I don't know if all of these men really get it or if now at least they know they'd better get it."

Women continue to come forward, writing public letters about abuses ranging from lewd comments to groping, and joining others in a wide range of industries where powerful figures have been toppled, seemingly by the week, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. As a result, legislators have resigned or have been removed from posts, sexual harassment policies have been revised, women's caucuses have been formed, and broad investigations have kicked into gear.

So far, many of the accused have held on to their seats — if not their stature. Some of the accusers have raised questions about whether they are witnessing the beginning of a systemic change or a short-lived political Band-Aid.

"Now they're doing this because e_SEmD why?" asked Denise Rotheimer, a political activist and Republican candidate for the Illinois House of Representatives. She complained last year that state Sen. Ira Silverstein, chairman of the Democratic majority caucus, had sent her midnight messages and asked numerous personal questions when she tried to work with him on a bill. "Because the media grabbed onto this? Because now it's public? Because there's nothing different from my complaint in November last year to my testimony this year."

Rotheimer testified publicly late last month at a state legislative hearing on a fast-moving measure addressing sexual harassment; within a day Silverstein had resigned his leadership position, though he disputed the charges, according to the Chicago Tribune. (Messages left with his office were not returned.) Lawmakers then moved quickly to appoint an interim legislative inspector general to lead the office charged with receiving and investigating complaints, after the position had sat vacant for about three years.

The upheaval in Illinois is just one of many in recent days. And with so many allegations, the speed of repercussions has picked up.

This month, the speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives, Jeff Hoover, was reported to have secretly settled with a staff member over claims of sexual harassment. The Republican governor, Matt Bevin, and eight of Hoover's fellow Republicans in the House demanded his resignation. Last week, Hoover stepped down as speaker, though he remained in his House seat. Three other Republican lawmakers — who were also named in the Oct. 25 settlement, the Courier-Journal of Louisville, Ky., reported — were removed from their committee leadership posts pending an investigation.

Florida Senate President Joe Negron ordered an independent investigation and took a powerful chairmanship post from state Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater, a fellow Republican, who has been accused of sexual harassment by six unidentified women.

Latvala, 66, has denied the allegations and is fighting to salvage his political career and candidacy for governor.

In Minnesota, an online news site, Minn-Post, reported Wednesday that several women had described Minnesota state Sen. Dan Schoen, a Democrat, making unwanted advances or even grabbing them, prompting immediate calls from his fellow lawmakers for his resignation, including the Senate minority leader and Gov. Mark Dayton, both Democrats. (Schoen, in a statement, said the allegations were "either completely false or have been taken far out of context.")

In California, the Legislature has investigated 31 allegations of sexual harassment since 2006, according to brief summaries released without more detailed information on Thursday.

The total number of investigations was released after the Los Angeles Times requested specific information following allegations in a letter signed by scores of women that a "pervasive" culture of harassment exists in and around the state Capitol. Some of those women called Thursday's limited release of information disappointing.

In separate documents, the Senate disclosed 15 investigations and the Assembly disclosed 16. The documents do not detail specifics, offer dates of the incidents, outline the complaints or divulge any information about whether the investigations were related to lawmakers or staff. None of the documents offer any explanation about the result of the investigations.

And in Colorado, the Denver Post reported Friday that Rep. Steve Lebsock, a Democrat in the Colorado House, had been accused of sexual harassment by his colleague and fellow party member Faith Winter. House Speaker Crisanta Duran, also a Democrat, quickly urged Lebsock to step down, and he later apologized for "offending" Winter.

Both political parties have had to reckon with sexual misconduct allegations as an urgent threat to their power.

"This is a real issue, and you want to do the right thing," said Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. In Illinois, Democrats have controlled both chambers in the state Legislature since 2003. "But it is also a potentially very damning political issue when the Democrats have been in charge."

That dynamic is now in play in Kentucky, where Republicans won complete control of the Legislature last year for the first time in nearly a century. The Democrats they ousted were only two years removed from a sexual harassment scandal that led to the resignation of a Democratic state representative, John Arnold.

So when the Republican House majority leader, Jonathan Shell, insisted on the caucus' full support for Hoover in the days after news broke of the sexual harassment settlement, the partisan backstop was unlikely to hold.

"I'm not going to condone or justify inappropriate behavior between membership and staff," said Rep. Robert Benvenuti, a Republican who was on the panel investigating Arnold in 2014.

This month, he was among the eight lawmakers publicly demanding the resignation of Hoover and others. Hoover admitted to the settlement in a news conference last week, though he said that the behavior — consisting of "inappropriate text messages" — was consensual and that he was stepping down as speaker mainly to keep the Legislature's focus on a hotly debated pension crisis.

Benvenuti and his colleagues still maintain that the only acceptable resolution is the resignation of Hoover and of the other legislators involved.

"There is enough distrust and thoughts of hypocrisy about people in government," Benvenuti said. "We've got to do our best in gaining some trust back."

Information from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement